Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Lovely Bones - review

SPOILER - nothing is spoiled here if you've read the book, but there is a plot point revealed in this review that you may not want to know about.

I thought I had reviewed The Lovely Bones when I read it a couple of years ago on here, but I merely mentioned I was reading it. I am not surprised, I don't often review books on here because as an editor I nearly always end up doing a full structural report, and find it hard to hold back from dissecting the ending, which isn't a very fun style of review to read unless you have read the book yourself, and want to get down and dirty.

Martin and I organised a rare night out with my mother-in-law babysitting, with no real plans, but perhaps a cheap and cheerful meal somewhere. But that very day I received an invitation to attend a free preview screening of The Lovely Bones, which is what you might call impeccable timing. So we headed into the city, shared a bowl of Gyu Ramen at Chocolate Buddha and walked down to Crown, a place that never fails to alarm me, and goes into psycho overdrive at Christmas time. But it was nice being at the movies, and sort of exciting handing over our phones at the beginning (though Martin fretted), and I enjoyed sitting in the cinema with other engaged movie-goers around me.

Anyway, onto my review.

Overall I have to say I was disappointed. The book bothered me, but it was compelling and beautifully written and had a strong sense of character. It was a difficult and challenging cartography of desire - the body in extremis - and about finding a way towards healthy sexuality. Lovely Bones the movie was about fathers and daughters to me, and as such a denial of sexuality. Missing was Sebold's strong, emotive analysis of the intimacies between women - mother, grandmother, sister, friend - and the fluid boundaries that separate the female experience when it comes to the lived history of the body.

The movie had immediate visual appeal. Anyone who's been loving Mad Men or Life on Mars will appreciate the brown 1973-ness of it all, gleaming with a sort of hyperreal Howard Arkley mode of seeing: suburbia as kitsch container of wabi-sabi beauty (okay, I get the mishmash there). The family life was sketched together nicely enough at the beginning, though I found Mark Wahlberg's portrayal of the father baffling at the start of the film (later I thought his performance outstanding) - he seemed almost sleazy. I settled into watch, hoping the grisly bit we all knew was coming would get over and done with quickly so I could enjoy the unfolding of the emotional arc of the story. But it was not to be. It was a bit like Titanic where an hour in you want to stand up and shout 'Sink the ship!' only in this case it's 'murder the nice little girl!' The scene leading up to the murder is excruciating in its tension, and I could feel my flight or fight (flee! flee!) instincts kicking in, it was almost impossible to stay in my chair. And then everything speeds up tremendously, so in the end a lot happens offstage - so there isn't actually the spectacle of violence.

And therein lies the problem. Jackson (and perhaps Sebold) over-compensates for the bad with shiny shiny. It's all right that she's killed cause look! Heaven! Sisterhood of victims! We all get to be frozen in time as perfect little girls forever! Martin and I disagreed about the CGI, he thought it fairly well-employed and beautiful (though lacking in substance), I found it cheap and tacky. We both agreed that the strength of the movie was the family dealing with the aftermath, which was the strength of the novel too.

My biggest problem with this movie is the fact that Susie is portrayed as more tween than teen, even though she is 14. Heaven is a Victorian idealisation of girlhood, with all sexuality stripped away. There is no real sense of sexual desire or body ownership in the film (well exemplified by Susie imagining herself as fashion model on a magazine - she actually becomes 2-dimensional). It's like everyone - Peter Jackson, even the performers - are studiously looking the other way when it comes to female sexuality, even to the point that it's never made clear if there is a sexual dimension to the murder. I found the climactic scene of the book peculiar to say the least, but when you read it as the character of Sebold (a victim of an awful sexual assault crime herself) stepping out of the halfway threshold space to reclaim her own sexuality, it made sense. In the movie, where everything is so innocent, where there is no body, it is a weak unsatisfying climax (she breaches the laws of heaven and earth for a chaste kiss?). I don't know if this was a performance issue (Saoirse Ronan is delightful, in an awkward way); I think that it was probably something they were aware of from casting. The end result was entirely dysfunctional, as if the only response to the lecherous gaze of Mr Harvey is to avert our own eyes, is to refuse to see or acknowledge even the merest presence of sexuality.


  1. Interesting. I really enjoyed the book, so not sure if i will see the movie 8-)

  2. Anonymous4:03 PM

    Thanks for the sharing this interesting information...I think that this movie will be ricking....I will definitely watch The Lovely Bones movie,when it will release...

  3. Anonymous1:21 AM

    I didn't really like Sebold's writing, athought the first chapter held my interest. The idea of Susie having died and telling her story from heaven intrigued me. Yet, after the first few chapters I got bored with it. I won't be going to see the film.

  4. excellent review!

  5. What a terrific review!

  6. Having now see the movie I need to say that You Are Right On The Money, summed up my problems with it perfectly.